Black Forest Fire not growing; 55% containment; 483 homes lost; 2 dead

Mandatory evac zone changing to pre-evac at 8 p.m.

EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. - The El Paso County Sheriff's Office announced Saturday evening that 25% to 30% of the mandatory evacuation zone for the Black Forest Fire will move to pre-evacuation status.

The new pre-evacuation zone went into effect at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sheriff Terry Maketa said. Pre-evacuation zone borders will be County Line Road to the north, Walker Road and Hodgen Road to the south and everything in that area west of Meridian Road. High Forest Ranch will also be downgraded to pre-evacuation status, the sheriff said.

Maketa said Highway 83 would reopen Saturday night. Walker Road, and Meridian Road are still closed. 

Fire incident commander Rich Harvey said containment has increased from 45 percent to 55 percent and fire officials are pleased with progress on the 15,500-acre wildfire that's cost $3.5 million to fight to date.

The sheriff said he wanted to use more aggressive words than "mop up" hot spots of the devastating wildfire.

"Us law enforcement folks like to use the term stomp," said Maketa said, adding that then the fire shows its head "we're going to stomp you, not mop you."

The Black Forest Fire is now the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history.

Lt. Jeff Kramer announced Saturday night the updated number of destroyed homes in the Black Forest fire is now at 483 with 17 houses partially damaged, as officials are able to access the burn area and better assess damage.  Sheriff's Office latest home assessment list: http://ch7ne.ws/13CR4lB

Two people died in the fire, apparently caught by the firestorm as they were loading their car in the garage while attempting to evacuate on Tuesday afternoon.

More than 20,000 people and 7,017 homes remain evacuated on Saturday. That's down from 38,000 people remain evacuated on Friday.

The sheriff's office said 92 people refused to evacuate in the path of the fire and of that number.  All of the 92 survived.  The last two who had been unaccounted for were located Saturday night and are safe.

But there was plenty of good news to share as authorities raised the number of homes in the fire area that are apparently undamaged from 2,645 to 3,181.

Authorities urged residents concerned about whether their home survived to not sneak on foot back into the fire area.

"I'm going to ask folks, please don't sneak in. When it's safe, authorities will reopen areas," Maketa said. The sheriff said his agency was working hard to confirm the status of homes, adding that it's a hard to do in a rural area where there are few mailboxes and burned out areas.

Maketa said some deputies have told him, "It looks like a nuclear bomb went off in some of those areas and you can't even recognize whether it was a house or some other kind of structure. That is the level of incineration and destruction that took place in some areas."

The sheriff assured worried homeowners his agency has seen no increase in looting or burglaries in the fire zone. He added that the district attorney has vowed stiff sentences for anyone convicted of "re-victimizing the victims."

Firefighting efforts were aided by some rain on Friday afternoon. As fire crews gain better control on the northern edge of the fire, all evacuated Elbert County residents were allowed to return home on Saturday, the Elbert County Sheriff's Office said.

On Friday, the city of Colorado Springs lifted its mandatory evacuations and El Paso County lifted its evacuations for those living west of Highway 83 and east of Meridian Road.

Those returning residents will be asked for identification at the checkpoints.

All pre-evacuation notices for Douglas County have also been lifted.

7NEWS Meteorologist Matt Makens said the amount of rain over the fire area was about a tenth of an inch.

"It's not a lot, but a blessing. That's 42.6 million gallons of water that fell on the assumed 15,700 acres of fire area. That's roughly 3,672 DC-10 drops, assuming that a DC-10 can drop about 11,000 gallons each time," Makens said.

With the rain came several hundred lightning strikes, but those didn't appear to cause any harm, Makens said.

The area has been cloudy and relatively cool for most of the day, great news for firefighters on the front lines.

"I'm so wet and a little chilly and I've never been happier to say that." Gov. John Hickenlooper said in a Friday afternoon briefing. He also was encouraged about the progress of the fire and the spirit that the residents  have shown in the face of adversity.

"The whole state is behind you. This is a resilient county and this is a resilient state," Hickenlooper said.

Officials at the Black Forest Fire remain very optimistic about getting a handle on the blaze even as the number of homes destroyed continues to climb because more homes are being assessed for damage.

View a complete list of the homes lost: http://www.epcsheriff.com/bff/Black%20Forest%20Fire%20-%20Residences.pdf

-- Investigating the Fire --

Maketa said investigators believe they are close to finding the place where the fire started.

"We have an active investigation for the cause of this fire," Maketa said. "We’re narrowing down what we believe is the point of origin."

The sheriff said it is likely human-caused but it's not clear if it was arson or an accident.

"I'm pretty confident that natural causes will be out the window," Maketa said.

To help investigations, the sheriff's office has set up two ways for people to submit tips -- a phone line at 719-444-8393 and an email address: blackforestfiretipline@elpasoco.com

Maketa said he hoped anyone who has photos to share with investigators would send them via email.

He also said that there were no reports of looting or burglaries overnight.

-- Fighting the Fire --

There are more than 1,000 people assigned to fighting the Black Forest Fire and providing other services.

There are about 800 firefighters on the ground in addition to police officers, sheriff's deputies, National Guard members and other military members, officials said.

Harvey said there will be several air tankers and helicopters fighting the fire from above Friday -- the same number that they saw on Thursday.

Harvey said thanks to deputies patrolling in the fire zone, firefighters were able to respond to several fires overnight and protect structures that were in danger.

"They took 40 to 45 calls that came in to us from law enforcement, about 25 percent of those calls resulted in firefighters being able to take direct intervention action that directly resulted in saving structures, " Harvey said.

Maketa commended the use of all the local, federal, and military resources to tackle the blaze.

"I have never seen a response to a fire that I've seen now," Maketa said.

-- Evacuation area expands --

On Thursday, the city of Colorado Springs issued a mandatory evacuation for the Flying Horse neighborhood.

"We don't think the fire is going to move into the neighborhood," Colorado Springs Fire Chief Tommy Smith said, clarifying that it was a precautionary measure.

However, the evacuation order remains in place. Smith said they would reassess the situation on Saturday.

"We want to err on the side of caution," Smith said.

And the weather may help firefighters Friday and over the weekend. There is no Red Flag Warning issued for anywhere in the state and high temperatures in the Black Forest area are expected to be close to 87 degrees, with winds gusting 15-30 mph.

Over the weekend, more clouds will be moving in and fewer wind gusts are predicted.

Of the thousands of people who were forced to flee from their homes, 234 stayed overnight at the three Red Cross shelters set up in the area.

The shelters  are  located at Palmer Ridge High School,  Elbert County Fairgrounds,  University of Colorado Colorado Springs Recreation Center.

(See evacuation map below or click here if you're on mobile: http://ch7ne.ws/10agjgQ)


View Black Forest Fire Evacuation Map in a larger map